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How building healthy boundaries is the key to work relationships

April 13, 2022 - 17 min read

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What does it mean to have healthy boundaries in relationships?

Why are relationship boundaries important?

What are the 5 types of boundaries?

What are examples of boundaries in relationships? 

What are some examples of healthy boundaries?

What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries?

What are 4 ways to set healthy boundaries in a relationship?

Moving forward

Boundaries in relationships are important, at home and at work. 

Without boundaries, you can lose your work-life balance. Maybe your boss constantly asks you to work long hours or your family members interrupt you during important meetings. Either way, the rise of remote work has made it more important than ever to establish relationship boundaries.

Physical boundaries tell you where you can and cannot go. On a road, they tell you where you can and cannot drive. They don’t come as yellow warning signs, but relationship boundaries are just as important as the ones that save you from driving where you shouldn't.

A boundary is a clear line. It can tell you where to stop. It can define where one thing ends and another begins. In any relationship, boundaries define where things like our personhood, our identity, our responsibility, and our control begin and end relative to the other person. 

However, seeing, understanding, and establishing boundaries isn't always easy. Your boundaries for your family members could be different from those for your friends, for example. 

Just as there are different kinds of relationships, there are many types of boundaries. Let's start by learning what it looks like to have healthy boundaries in relationships. 

 

What does it mean to have healthy boundaries in relationships?

Healthy boundaries in relationships create mutual respect between individuals. Setting boundaries helps us know what's expected in the relationship. Plus, boundaries show us how we can respect each other’s personal space, comfort level, and limits. 

Boundaries can look different in every relationship. We have unique relationships with our friends, coworkers, family, and romantic partners. For example, you may share financial accounts with your romantic partner, but not your parents. 

Similarly, maybe you express lots of emotions with your family members, but not your coworkers. It’s probably not appropriate to complain to your officemate about your relationship problems. However, it’s perfectly fine to vent about your intramural soccer team’s loss. 

Whatever the relationship, we need to respect existing boundaries and give each other space to set new limits.​​  In healthy relationships, both people have healthy self-esteem and are able to both be vulnerable and assert their boundaries. They feel free to think, feel, and act independently. 

Remember, the boundary is always set at the level of the least comfortable person. In a work or group setting, that person might not speak up. That’s why we tend to have some social norms around default boundaries in environments like the office. 

Ultimately, everyone wants to feel like their well-being is valued and cared for. Boundaries in relationships can help you get there, by allowing you to communicate your needs and limits.

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Why are relationship boundaries important?

Boundaries are a form of self-care. They’re a way of taking care of your mental health and ensuring that your well-being is respected. 

For example, knowing your partner's boundaries helps you know them as a whole person. This is because respecting their limits can help them feel more safe to open up to you. From there, true connection and intimacy can bloom. 

Relationship boundaries with your coworkers can be even more important. Unprofessional behavior can impact your career trajectory. However, many people fail at proper boundaries — a survey by Udemy showed that 37% of office workers believe their coworkers are too informal on workplace chat platforms, for example. 

Without boundary setting, relationship and career growth can be tough. Speaking up for yourself — and giving others the opportunity to do the same — will pave the way for better mental health for everyone. 

That said, learning how to have boundaries in relationships might be new for you. If you feel like you need extra support, consider trying BetterUp. BetterUp can provide the guidance you need to implement habits that prioritize your well-being. 

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What are the 5 types of boundaries?

Within your relationships, you need more than one or two boundaries. No single boundary can encompass all your needs. As you begin prioritizing your comfort and ability to function as an independent human, think about the 5 kinds of relationship boundaries below.

1. Emotional boundaries

Emotional boundaries have to do with being clear on what is and isn't yours to feel or fix. Your emotions and emotional well-being are within your control regardless of what is happening for the other person. These boundaries help us show empathy without absorbing the other person’s feelings. 

At work, emotional boundaries can be played out when you listen to a peer's difficulties with their manager. An emotional boundary looks like not being obliged to also be mad at the manager or drawn into the other person’s frustration. 

As a parent, emotional boundaries can mean not letting your own mood be contingent on the mood of your teenager. Even though you want them to be happy, you can separate yourself and have your own feelings. Another emotional boundary can be not getting upset when your partner doesn't follow you into a spiral of despair when watching the news. 

Ultimately, emotional boundaries in relationships are about maintaining our individuality. We all have our own thoughts and feelings, and can care about each other without losing our sense of self. 

2. Intellectual boundaries

Everyone has different beliefs, ideas, and values. Intellectual boundaries help us respect one another's different viewpoints. This is important so that you don’t expect people in your relationships to share all of your opinions or adopt all of your views. Even if you disagree with your coworkers or loved ones, you still need to be able to share your opinions and feelings. 

This isn’t so much worrying about whether your opposing view hurts another person’s feelings. It’s more about respecting their right to hold their own opinions, whether about politics or a marketing strategy.

Intellectual boundaries can also help you feel more secure in holding your own opinions. Instead of trying to be liked by everyone by agreeing with them, you can remain true to yourself. 

You may need intellectual boundaries if your differences lead to arguments and insults. Do you feel personally attacked or offended when the other person disagrees with you? Does the other party? Is it about any difference or just certain topics?

Reconsider why you or the other person feels so threatened. From there, establish intellectual boundaries that allow you both to feel your viewpoints are valued.

3.Physical boundaries

Physical boundaries are an important type of relationship boundary. We all have different levels of comfort when it comes to physical touch — some people may be comfortable with hugs in the workplace, for example. Others may not appreciate physical touch in this context. 

Speaking up about your physical boundaries at work or with your friends is important. Even if others can’t understand your boundaries, you have a right to do what makes you comfortable. Make sure you give your friends and coworkers space to voice their personal limits, too. 

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4. Financial boundaries

Conversations about money can be tough, but we all know they’re needed. You probably already talk about money with your partner — maybe you have joint accounts or are saving for a vacation. However, money is also a factor in other relationships. 

If your friends constantly choose expensive restaurants, for example, you may need to set a boundary about what you’re willing to spend. The same goes for coworkers who ask you to join them for lunch or happy hours. Consider what your financial goals are, and be ready to share your relationship boundaries for this area.

5. Sexual boundaries

When it comes to physical intimacy, sexual boundaries shouldn’t be ignored. Discussing what's off-limits and what kind of contact you prefer is needed to develop a trusting relationship. Setting sexual boundaries also includes prioritizing consent. 

What are examples of boundaries in relationships? 

We can set all sorts of boundaries in our relationships. The bottom line is that our boundary setting should make us feel respected in our relationships. 

Here are five examples of healthy relationship boundaries:

  1. Expecting others to communicate during disagreements with maturity
  2. Letting go of codependency and having your own identity
  3. Asking for personal space and quiet when you're working 
  4. Voicing your concerns rather than holding onto resentment 
  5. Leaving the situation when someone is communicating disrespectfully with you

What are some examples of healthy boundaries?

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Our personal boundaries should always be heard and never excluded from any relationship. To give you an idea of what personal boundaries can look like, here are five examples:

  1. Ownership and agency over your financial assets
  2. The ability to stay true to your sense of self, spiritual beliefs, and passions
  3. Ability to prioritize personal time for self-care 
  4. The right to change your mind and preferences
  5. Alone time with no distractions or interruptions

What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries?

Ready to start setting relationship boundaries? First, take a moment to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy boundaries. 

We know that healthy boundaries are supposed to develop mutual respect and create a sense of comfort and safety. Unhealthy boundaries do the opposite — they are often actually a lack of boundaries.

These boundaries aim to control the other person and manipulate them into doing things they don't want to do. In fact, unhealthy boundaries are a common tactic of toxic people

If you have a friend that gets overly angry when you are too busy to spend time with them, they may be trying to control you. That's a red flag, and suggests that they aren’t truly a friend.

You may also have seen unhealthy boundaries in toxic workplaces. Have you ever had a manager require constant overtime, even when a project wasn’t that urgent? Or maybe you have a coworker that doesn’t respect your time off, and messages you at all hours of the day. 

Regardless of the situation, these unhealthy relationship boundaries demand too much. Someone with unhealthy boundaries doesn't question how the other person feels. Their goal is to control. 

The good news is you can learn how to spot unhealthy boundaries and leave toxic relationships before they take over your life. Whether at work or at home, you deserve to feel empowered to perform and feel your best. 

What are 4 ways to set healthy boundaries in a relationship?

Everyone has their own way of setting boundaries. While it may take some trial and error to find your personal way of speaking up, the important thing is to keep trying. 

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If you're unsure how to create healthy boundaries in your relationships, here are four ways you can start today:

  1. Take the initiative and begin establishing your standards early in a new relationship. If you’re at a new job, make it clear that you plan to log off at a certain time. If it’s with a new friend, share what kind of emotional support you need from the beginning. 
  2. Learn from mistakes you and the other person have made and take it as an opportunity to set a new boundary. If you have a fight or a misunderstanding with a friend, it’s a perfect time to be vulnerable and share your needs. You can always start fresh whether your relationship is 1 week or 10 years old. 
  3. Strengthen your communication skills and articulate your feelings clearly. Get used to saying “no” and practice often. 
  4. Take a moment to think about your boundaries. Try writing out the specifics in a journal. Also consider your “why” — what need are you trying to meet with your relationship boundary? This will help you stay strong if others resist your boundaries. 

Moving forward

Boundaries are a pillar of success in any relationship. It sets the groundwork for happy relationships filled with love, trust, and respect. We all deserve to feel that way, and we shouldn't accept unhealthy boundaries no matter how much we care about the person.

We also can't expect to execute our boundaries flawlessly as soon as we establish them. They take time and commitment to develop. We need to practice saying “no” and communicating clearly. The feeling of relief that comes from setting healthy boundaries in relationships will make the effort more than worth it. 

Along the way, you might need some help with establishing your boundaries. A platform like BetterUp can help you develop the communication skills you need to articulate your boundaries that will benefit your well-being and your future relationships. 

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Published April 13, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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